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Special Events

Educating Through EVENTS

Events are making the grade in finding donors and exposure for institutions Institutions use special events to make donors feel special, to make communities feel proud and to make the rest of the world take notice.

When Atlanta-based Georgia State University wanted to build its athletic program two years ago, it brought in high-profile basketball coach Charles "Lefty" Driesell. He was close to becoming only the 11th basketball coach with 700 college victories.

Beth Gallant, director of donor relations, says GSU wanted to celebrate Driesell's milestone with a dinner that would prove the university capable of producing high-profile events.

GSU invited 11 speakers, including his former coach at Duke University and players Driesell had coached. For the guest list, "We looked back through our donors and invited people who were important to GSU, whether or not they were involved in athletics," Gallant says.

The event was held in GSU's new student center. Mounted basketballs autographed by Driesell served as centerpieces for each table. Silver and gold metallic ribbons wove through the ivy surrounding the basketballs. "We didn't get too serious," Gallant says. "We kept in mind that it was a sports-related event."

More than 400 people attended the dinner at $100 per plate. "And we reaped rewards afterward, too," Gallant says. Many of the attendees affiliated with Driesell have become GSU donors, she says.

THANKS A MILLION! Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg planned a black-tie gala to honor major donors to its fund-raising campaign. e page 31

The campaign kicked off in 1992 with a goal of $250 million. By the campaign's end in 1998, Virginia Tech had raised $337.4 million. "We realized this recognition event needed to be very special," says Mary Grace Theodore, special events manager.

Remsberg Tent of Durham, N.C., provided a 100-by-200-foot clear-span tent, which was placed on the drill field in the center of campus. The 550 attendees enjoyed a reception, a dinner and a program produced by theater students.

Honorary campaign co-chairs and alumni Robert B. Pamplin Sr. and Robert B. Pamplin Jr. had given more than 300 Virginia public high schools $1,000 apiece. During the event, 160 scholars who benefited from their donations marched in as the master of ceremonies announced, "This is the future of what your generosity means."

"Everybody exploded when the scholars marched in," Theodore says. "People had a wonderful feeling about Virginia Tech."

FINDING FUNDS Mary Cranwell, director of special events at Georgian Court College in Lakewood, N.J., says fund-raisers bring in up to $250,000 for the college each year.

Many events are held at the campus's 105-year-old Georgian Court estate, which the college purchased from the George Jay Gould family in the early 1900s. "We capitalize on the fact that we're a historical landmark," Cranwell says. "We do a lot of Victorian-era and Roaring '20s themed events." Last December, Georgian raffled off a New Year's Eve dinner for a winner and 40 guests. "It raised about $15,000," Cranwell says.

Cranwell says the school uses the fund-raisers to find new donors, such as guests of the raffle winners. "It's important to find out about the people to start to unearth the new donors."

ENROLLMENT ENHANCERS In 1998, Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau kicked off a yearlong series of events to celebrate its 125th anniversary. Working with the local chamber of commerce, SEMO made its annual Welcome Back picnic lunch for returning students bigger and better that year by inviting everyone in the community. "The normal attendance is 3,000," says Diane Sides, interim director of university relations. That picnic drew about 9,000. In addition, the standard hot-dog and chips picnic fare was upgraded to food stations featuring pasta and Cajun cooking.

"We're a fairly small regional university," Sides says. "It was a way for us to showcase the wonderful things going on our campus."

TRADE SECRETS Theodore says institutions communicate with each other and share ideas about special events.

The Association of Collegiate Conference and Events Directors-International offers networking for e people on campuses who plan special events. ACCED-I hosts a conference each spring and professional development workshops each fall.

"In the university setting, you have a lot of university politics in terms of special events," executive director Deborah Blom says. ACCED-I members learn through workshops and idea sharing.

EXHIBITING WITH EVENTS Colleges and universities aren't the only institutions that use special events to gain exposure. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago planned an event to launch the opening of its new building five years ago. The 24-hour "Summer Solstice" event was so popular - more than 20,000 people attended - that MCA has continued it every year, says Phillip Bahar, acting marketing director.

Featuring music, film, art and activities for children and adults, the event offers "a glimpse of what the museum will do throughout the year," Bahar says. The event starts at 5 p.m. on a Friday in June and continues until 5 p.m. the next day.

Bahar also plans a series of events held the first Friday of every month. Attendees look at art, listen to music and dine on hors d'oeuvre. He estimates the Friday festivities bring in an additional 17,000 visitors each year. "It's a great way to reach out to people who might not come to the museum or need something special to motivate them," he says.

Sides points to the warm feelings created by special events, calling such events "`friend-raisers.' We start with friendship building and hope it carries over into foundation building."

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